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A Kingship of Service

This sermon was given Good Friday, March 25, 2016.

Quintus stood at attention eyes front the in the great hall of the Praetorium, the governor’s residence in the Antonia Fortress, as person after person came to Pilate with a request, a legal case or simply to greet him, as all clients greeted their patron each day throughout the Roman Empire. Two soldiers brought in Jesus. He looked tired and bedraggled, his hair sticking in different directions, after a night with what little sleep he could catch in a prison cell between interrogations and appearing before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council. “What did Herod say?” Pilate asked Jesus’ guards. “He sent him back to you, finding no crime worthy of death, Praetor” replied Octavius in clipped, formal speech.

Quintus stared intently at Jesus. He had watched him earlier when he appeared before Pilate outside the Praetorium. Despite the chief priests’ and scribes’ vitriolic accusations of perverting the nation, forbidding the payment of tribute and sedition against the Roman Empire, Jesus made no attempt to defend himself. He seemed at peace, Quintus thought, “almost,” he groped for the right word in his mind, “almost serene, even without sleep, food and the constant barrage of insults, threats and even blows. There is something different about him,” Quintus thought.

“Nothing worthy of death,” Pilate repeated to himself. He paused, and then said to Jesus. “You have been charged with claiming to be a king. A capital offense. Sedition against the Empire. What do you say?” Jesus said nothing. “You’re a king, are you?” Pilate mockingly sneered, trying to goad Jesus, who only stood silently. “Don’t you know I have the power to release you or to crucify you?” Pilate said sternly. “Once again. Are you a king?” Jesus answered, looking Pilate straight in the eyes, “You say so.” “We’re getting nowhere here,” Pilate said. “Quintus, Sextus, beat this king. We’ll get the truth out of him.”

Quintus and Sextus, who stood across from each other at attention on opposite sides of the hall, looked each other in the eye, hesitating for half a second and then walked over to Jesus. Quintus hit him in the stomach doubling him over. Sextus smashed his elbow into Jesus’ spine knocking him to the ground. Quintus kicked Jesus in the side and Sextus punched him in the face. Jesus made no attempt to resist or to escape. He only moaned and writhed in pain as the two continued to pommel him. “Enough,” Pilate ordered curtly.

“Dress our honored king appropriately,” Pilate demanded. Quintus and Sextus stood by the limp, moaning Jesus, while two soldiers left the hall. Pilate conferred with his advisors. When the soldiers came back, Quintus and Sextus pulled Jesus up while the other soldiers wrapped him with a purple cloak and put a plaited crown of thorns on his head. Blood began to seep down his forehead from where the thorns cut him. “Clothes make the man,” Pilate said mockingly. “Are you a king, Jesus of Nazareth?” Once again, Jesus answered, “You say so.” Pilate stared hard at Jesus for a few moments and then walked outside to the judgement seat to confer with the Jewish authorities.

Quintus stared at Jesus who stood there, unsteadily swaying, blood now trickling down all sides of his face, slightly panting. He couldn’t help but admire his courage. “I haven’t seen anything that makes me think this man is a threat,” Quintus thought. “He hasn’t resisted; he hasn’t tried to get away; he hasn’t denounced Rome. Even said ‘forgive him’ when I hit him with my sword when we arrested him.

Through the open door he heard Pilate say, “I find nothing in this man worthy of death.” And the crowd of priests, scribes and other officials scream, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” “I know what this is all about,” Quintus suddenly thought. “Politics.” “This Jesus of Nazareth has hacked off the local officials. He’s challenged them somehow and they want him out of the way.” Quintus heard little more from outside as he continued to stare at Jesus.

A few minutes later Pilate came in drying his hands and ordered, “Quintus, Sextus, take this man to the guard, have him scourged and crucified with the other criminals today.” The two grabbed him by the elbows and took him to the guard’s hall, where they stripped him and began to scourge him with a cat of nine tails that had bone and metal in the end of the whips to rip and tear the flesh from the bone.

Quintus and Sextus stood talking to Octavius and Secundus, another solider in the Third Italia. “This guy didn’t do anything,” Quintus said. “It’s local politics. He’s no threat to the Empire.” “Not so fast,” Secundus interjected. “Did you hear what he did at the Temple? He kicked over some of the money changers tables and said that it was a den of robbers.” “And?” Quintus asked. “It’s the Jewish Temple. What does that have to do with Rome?” “You know as well as I do, Quintus, that Rome chooses the High Priest. The Temple serves Rome’s interests. He wasn’t just challenging the Temple structure. He was challenging the Empire. He deserves everything he’s getting and then some.” Quintus didn’t say anything lightly biting his lip.

After the scourging ended, Jesus collapsed after they cut him down, blood flowing from his back on to the blood stained pavers where countless others had been tortured. The soldiers gathered around him, laughing, jeering ad mocking him. “Some king you are! Where’re your subjects now, King of the Jews? Oh yeah, yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The men roared with laughter. In the past, Quintus had readily joined this ritual to humiliate those who dared defy Rome, but this time he and Sextus stood back as the soldiers put the purple cloak and crown of thorns back on Jesus bowing and shouting “Hail, King of the Jews!” while they laughed at their own humor.

The centurion walked over to Quintus and Sextus and said, “You’re with me. Get Secundus and Octavius. We’re the crucifixion detail.” “Sir, with all due respect, we were out last night on a raid….” Quintus started before being cut off by the centurion. “You know as well as I do this is an easy detail. Get moving, soldier.”

They walked through the busy streets of Jerusalem, most people barely noticing another execution detail, as they hurried for their Sabbath and Passover preparations. Each of the three prisoners carried his own cross beam. Upright poles stood at Golgotha, the place of the skull. The execution site was just outside the city in a visible spot by a well-traveled road. The Romans wanted everyone to see the condemned dying slowly and painfully to deter others who might consider subverting their rule.

Half way along the way Jesus collapsed. “Get up,” the centurion ordered. When he didn’t move, he kicked him brutally in the side so that the body lifted a few inches from the paving stones. As the centurion was about to kick him again, Quintus said, “Sir, we’ll get him up. Let’s get someone to carry the beam for him or we’ll never get there.” “Alright,” the centurion answered. “You there. Stop. Pick this beam up and carry it.” “But…but, I have business in the city,” the man from Cyrene protested. “I don’t have time for this.” “You do now,” the centurion said. “This is Rome’s business.” “But that beam is dirty and bloody. I ….” The man stopped as he saw the centurion pull his sword halfway out of its sheath. “Of course,” he said. “Rome’s business ….”

When they reached Golgotha, they crucified the two other men first. Jesus screamed, when Secundus hammered the thick nails through his wrists into the crossbeam. Quintus looked away. He had seen many men executed and killed many in battle, but for some reason he didn’t grasp at the moment he couldn’t watch.

After the crossbeam with Jesus had been lifted and fixed to the upright post, the centurion, who had seen Quintus looking away, said, “Quintus, hammer in the feet.” Quintus slowly walked over to Secundus to get the mallet, taking his time looking for a nail only to hear the centurion bark, “Get a move on, soldier! You aren’t going soft on me, are you?” Quintus curtly answered, “No, Centurion.” He roughly twisted Jesus’ legs, forced his heels together and hammered the nail through his heels. Jesus screamed and sobbed.

Quintus threw the mallet to the ground after he finished hammering the nail home into the beam. He bent over and put a sponge on the end of a long stick and dipped it in sour wine mixed with gall and held it to Jesus’ lips. “Drink this,” he said in a low voice. “It will make it easier for you.” Jesus looked him kindly in the eyes, took a sip and then slowly shook his head. Quintus then held it up for the other two prisoners so that no one would think anything of his offering the pain deadening mixture to Jesus.

While the other soldiers laughed and gambled for the criminals’ clothing, Quintus and Sextus stood guard, making sure no one tried to rescue the dying men. People passing by laughed and jeered at the criminals. “Save yourself, King of the Jews!” “Great throne you’ve got there, King!” They shouted at Jesus, who hung underneath an inscription that read, “INRI,” “Iesu Nazerene Rex Iudorum,” “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” Some passersby even threw rocks and garbage at the men hanging on the crosses.

A few women and a couple of young men stood watching at a distance by the side of the road. Quintus walked towards them. One young man turned and ran away. Quintus shook his head and waved his open hands at them. “Why?” the older woman asked, her face taught and anguished. “He has done nothing. He helped others. He taught people to love God and to love their neighbor. My son has done nothing wrong.” “He was convicted under law,” Quintus answered feeling less sure than he sounded. “Under law? Is that what you call it? He was not tried justly according to the laws of my people. We even went to Pilate’s judgment seat. Even that butcher Pilate washed his hands of the whole thing.” Before he knew what he was saying, Quintus uttered, “I’m sorry. I….” He stopped not knowing what else to say to Jesus’ mother except “Tell me about your son.”
Mary then told him how he had been born miraculously, taught in the Temple when he was only twelve years old, and then started teaching and healing after his cousin John the Baptist was arrested by Herod Antipas. “My son is a good man. He served those in need. He showed God to us.”

The sky got darker and darker. Quintus walked back over to the crosses and looked up at Jesus, who cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” and breathed his last. The centurion walked over to look at Jesus. Quintus said to him, “Truly, this man was innocent.”
Today we are concluding our sermon series “Riding with the King.” Today, we see that this king reigns from a rough wooden cross by giving for others.

Sunday we heard that King David ordered that his son Solomon to be anointed king and to be brought into Jerusalem on a mule. David then says, “Let him enter and sit on my throne; he shall be king in my place; for I have appointed him to be ruler over Israel and over Judah.” Biblical scholar Brant Pitre, in his discussion of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, says that while Jesus reenacts Solomon’s entry to reveal his own kingship, he ascends to a different throne. Pitre writes, “the throne to which Jesus … ascend(s) as king is not the golden throne of Solomon, but the wooden throne of Golgotha. [H]is triumph will not be through the power of the chariot or the violence of the bow, but through offering his own life.”

When Israel wanted to have a king, the prophet Samuel warned that a king would take their sons, daughters, and servants and seize the best of their flocks and fields. Jesus, however, ascends his throne not to take but to give. On the night he institutes his sacrifice of bread and wine, he does what no rabbi, teacher or leader in the ancient world would have done, he washes the feet of his disciples, and then he fulfills the sacrifice of bread and wine by giving his body and blood the next day.

In 2012, Brad Jamison left a dream job that had become toxic for him. With time on his hands and no direction for his life, he embarked on 30 days of service. Each day for 30 days in a row, he served with a different non-profit in Los Angeles. He discovered joy, gratitude and clarity, transforming his life. A 74 year old veteran, who he delivered food with to impoverishd seniors, taught him that each person mattered regardless of his or her living conditions and to joy in the good he was doing for others. He learned gratitude from a woman who was battling cancer who was grateful for every day. He gained clarity when he recorded a seven minute video for the It Gets Better Project that brings stories of hope to those struggling with their sexual identity. Telling his own childhood and adolescent struggles with bullying and coming to terms with his orientation finally freed him from shame of his peers opinions and treatment of him. His 30 days of service transformed Brad Jamison’s life.

Jesus not only teaches but he shows us that if we want to find our lives we must lose them. When he enters into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey, he invites us to ride with him. He shows us that we ride with the king by serving others.